If you haven’t seen Bruce Almighty recently (no big loss), since Steve Carell rose to leading-man prominence with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, you might not realize that Carell was actually in that film as a character named Evan. You probably remember his big scene, though: He was Jim Carrey’s big rival, the smug news anchor on whom Bruce almighty did a Tower-of-Babel number during a broadcast, leaving him spouting gibberish in front of the cameras.
It was probably the funniest moment in the film — and it was Carell’s scene, not Carrey’s. With Carell’s star rising, there’s a certain logic in turning to supporting character Evan Baxter for the sequel, rather than trying to eke another story out of Carrey’s Bruce Nolan.
The key point of contact between the two films, though, is not Evan, who for the story’s purposes might as well be a brand-new character (and probably was in early drafts, before Carell was cast). Evan isn’t even a news anchor any more, but a freshman congressman, with only a single perfunctory scene connecting his old life to his new life. What secures Evan Almighty’s sequel status is Morgan Freeman as God — that, and the fuzzy pop spirituality that crops up in director Tom Shadyac’s films (see Dragonfly for another example).
Even the premise is so different that the title, Evan Almighty, is a marketing-ploy misnomer. The new film isn’t about God giving omnipotent power to another news anchor (actually, God didn’t do that in the original either, but that’s another review). This time around, God has a mission for the protagonist.
“Do I know you?” Evan asks uncertainly when he discovers an elderly black stranger sitting cross-legged on a load of gopher wood in Evan’s front yard.
God smiles knowingly. “Oh, not as well as I’d like,” he answers.
That’s true. We’ve seen that Evan isn’t much for religion — though, prompted by his wife Joan (Lauren Graham), he does offer an awkward prayer on the eve of their new life outside Washington, DC. “Thank you for — everything,” he mumbles, adding sheepishly, “Love the house. Well, I picked it out, but… You made matter and everything.”
What gets God’s attention, though, is Evan’s yen to make a difference — to “change the world,” as his campaign slogan goes. That’s why God has that gopher wood delivered to Evan’s house. Yep, God wants Evan to build an ark. Perhaps the Almighty was impressed by Evan’s performance in the televised Tower-of-Babel incident and decided to continue the primeval-history theme in a backwards direction, in which case we should look for an apple and a serpent in the third film, unless Evan’s brother kills him first.
An ark? “That’s flood territory!” Evan protests incredulously. “You wouldn’t do that again, would you?”
“Whatever I do,” God answers equably, “I do because I love you.”
In a nice touch, the film follows up on this line by suggesting that being loved by God may not always be sunshine and roses. At a low point in the story, Evan recalls God’s words: “I know, whatever you do, you do because you love me, right?” At that moment a water sprinkler happens to go off, hitting Evan squarely in the face. “Do me a favor,” Evan mutters. “Love me less.”
I suspect the filmmakers were thinking here of Tevye’s famous line from Fiddler on the Roof: “I know we’re the chosen people… but couldn’t you choose someone else for awhile?” Certainly a scene in which Freeman’s God bursts out laughing as Evan tries to explain why his plans don’t leave room for ark-building was inspired by the saying, possibly a Yiddish proverb but popularized by Woody Allen, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.”
Tough love is one thing; punishment for sins is something else. Like its predecessor, in which Bruce’s cohabitation with his girlfriend somehow never came up between him and God, Evan Almighty pretty much ignores the topic of sin, despite its overt connection to the story of Noah’s ark. Of course Evan is a family man, and Evan is a family film (Bruce was rated PG‑13; Evan is PG), so that particular issue doesn’t crop up again, but God does have a speech, typical of the films’ sensibilities, in which he brushes aside the theme of judgment in the story of Noah’s ark.
“Lots of people miss the point of that story,” he confides to Evan’s wife Joan (Joan, ark, get it?). “They think it’s all about God’s wrath. They love it when God gets angry.” He then goes on to give an alternative take on Noah’s ark as “a love story about believing in each other,” going on the ark two by two, side by side. But why did God send the flood in the first place?
Is there a flood in Evan Almighty? Suffice to say, the Genesis 9 covenant promise, sealed with the rainbow, never again to destroy the earth in a flood is in no jeopardy in this film, but at the same time Evan’s ark (not to mention the film’s rep as the most expensive comedy in history) isn’t for nothing either.
The animals that show up two by two, on the other hand, make no dramatic sense — no species are ever threatened with extinction — except possibly by way of divine showmanship and symbolism, also presumably how Evan’s Santa Clause–esque physical transformation is to be understood. Certainly there’s no practical reason why God should want Evan to sport a white cataract of hair or to adopt ancient Near Eastern nomadic couture; it must be to make some sort of point about Evan’s mission to his skeptical audience. But what point exactly is that? Doesn’t God call people in business suits to do his work in business suits? In fact, mightn’t Evan’s transformation into a Gandalf lookalike perhaps suggest that the whole idea of a divine calling is something of an anachronism in the world today?
That’s probably reading too much into it. Evan’s patriarchal appearance is just part of the story’s comic riffing on the Noah story. (I did wonder whether at the end of his ordeal Evan would at least make a joke about getting drunk, but the movie doesn’t go there.) Rather than judgment or salvation, Evan Almighty offers an inoffensive message of conservationism and family togetherness, leavened by bestiary slapstick. Harmless, diverting, very mildly uplifting, Evan Almighty offers passable family entertainment meant to appeal equally to Bible-believing conservatives and left-leaning environmentalists.
Compared to Bruce Almighty, Shadyac’s pop spirituality comes off a bit better in Evan, I guess. Certainly there’s nothing here as problematic as the earlier film’s “Be the miracle” pap, in which God suggested that people need to stop “looking up” and look to themselves instead.
Where Bruce intriguingly turned on Bruce surrendering to God’s will and coming to a real understanding of selfless love, Evan addresses obedience to God’s calling whatever the consequences, even if your family is against you, while at the same time emphasizing family solidarity with a too-familiar tale of a workaholic dad too and his long-suffering family. That’s preferable to the normalization of the broken family in such “un-family films” as The Santa Clause, Night at the Museum and Zathura. On the other hand, you might do better, as a friend (Lisa Popcak of the radio show “Heart, Mind & Strength”) wryly put it, reading your kids the real Noah story and then taking them to the zoo.
Shadyac was raised Catholic, and has suggested that his spiritual milieu is progressive and edgy (he has mentioned attending a “very open” Catholic parish, one so far beyond “the spirit of Vatican II” that he describes it as “Vatican IX”). Yet his films are consistently bland, generic and unchallenging — an interesting if unintentional commentary on “progressive” religion, perhaps, which doesn’t really have a lot to say.
Theologically speaking, the question was absurd and meaningless; but the answer, I think, contained profound insight. God is both the source and the goal of our being, the meaning as well as the master of our lives. Imagine reality without God, and life becomes meaningless; imagine divine omnipotence at the disposal of anything other than divine love, and existence becomes infinite horror.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.